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Pirongia Lineage Kokako returned to our maunga

Kokako DNA came full circle on Saturday when 14 birds with genes originating from the last kokako from the Pirongia area were released on the maunga. A conservation group for Mt Pirongia, Pirongia Te Aroaro o Kahu Restoration Society, has led the restoring of kokako to Mt Pirongia by creating a safe environment for this lost species through community based pest control currently covering 1,000 ha in Pirongia Forest Park. Successfully reducing rats and possums to consistently low levels made the group eligible to bring back the descendants of kokako which were captured in the 1990s from the southern slopes of Mt Pirongia and transferred to a captive breeding programme in an effort to stop them dying out. Those hopes were realised and kokako with Pirongia lineage are now on Kapiti Island and Tiritiri Matangi Island. It was birds from the latter sanctuary that were translocated to Mt Pirongia as part of the re-establishment of a self-sustaining population there.

Above: Dave Bryden, the kokako ecologist leading the capture and Morag Fordham, Kokako Team Leader on Tiritiri Matangi Island checking a kokako just after capture on Tiritiri Matangi Island.

The Society’s Chair, Clare St Pierre spent the preceding week on Tiritiri Matangi Island helping the 13 strong capture team. “I was a minion among the leading maestros of kokako catching and saw first hand the incredible care taken in planning a translocation of this scale. Being close up to the birds and hearing their utterly divine singing while on the Island was beyond thrilling. Now, I’m totally stoked that we finally have been able to return them to a safe home here on their own Mt Pirongia.”

Pirongia Te Aroaro o Kahu Restoration Society was formed in 2002 with the aim of restoring the native ecosystems on the maunga, and they include in their title the full Maori name for Mt Pirongia which refers to the scented presence of a tohunga’s wife, Kahu. From the formation of the group, a goal was set to have the call of the kokako once again on the maunga, especially as some of the first committee members had personally heard the majestic song of this iconic bird there and longed to hear it again.

The translocation this weekend is part of a larger programme to establish a self-sustaining population on the maunga, which needs at least 40 founder kokako without close family ties to provide sufficient genetic diversity. In the last year, thirty other kokako have been sourced from Waipapa in Northern Pureora Forest and another 10 are to be translocated in 2019 from there, but birds are only counted as founders if they produce offspring and are recruited into the wider population. Birds would not be considered founders if it is not known how robust their genetic makeup or family interconnectedness is.

Above: The capture boxes with a kokako in each all ready for the release at Pirongia Forest Park on Saturday.

Following Saturday’s release, the kokako will be given a few months to settle in and then a specialist team supported by volunteers will begin post-release monitoring to locate them and identify where they have established territories. The Society is also committed to monitoring up to five nests so it can be verified that the kokako are able to breed successfully and predator control is effective. Nesting outcomes will be reviewed and adaptations to the existing pest control regime made in response so the birds are given the best chance to thrive and build numbers as quickly as possible. If pairs are found outside the society’s low pest area, then additional pest control will be started around them so they also remain safe. The public are encouraged to report any sightings around Pirongia Forest Park by using the free kokako app the society developed thanks to support from Thundermaps and Waikato Regional Council which automatically gives the GPS location of the bird. The app is available from Google Play and the Apple Store.

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